Cathy Raymond is the Assistant Director, English Language Programs in the Office for International Students and Scholars at Washington University, Saint Louis.
In November, 2014, I travelled to Nepal as an English Language Specialist on a U.S. State Department grant. This month-long project involved writing a handbook to facilitate an increase in cultural programming at the eight American Corner locations in Nepal. I was also tasked with training American Corner resource staff from all over Nepal on how to use the handbook.
At present, Nepal has eight American Corner library locations; these libraries have partnerships with the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, and include seven brick-and-mortar locations and one mobile book bus which makes it possible to reach more remote locations in Nepal.
One of the many goals of the American Corner libraries is to organize regular programming that promotes a stronger sense of community while also increasing cultural understanding between Nepal and the United States. Some of these programs include culture clubs, movie clubs, book clubs, holiday celebrations (American and Nepalese) and English conversation groups.
During the four weeks that I worked on writing the handbook in Nepal, I was also able to visit a few schools, observe teachers, and work with some school children. One of my most memorable experiences was spending the day with the American Corner Book Bus. As part of its mission of empowerment through education, the book bus travels all over Nepal to visit regional schools. When it arrives at a school, the bus parks, the side opens up, and books magically appear. Book bus staff then set up educational stations throughout the school, and children rotate from one station to another. These stations include poetry, free reading, games, and a large poster display and discussion on climate change. When I visited the book bus, the school children were furiously painting stories on the outdoor basketball court. The atmosphere was electric, and colorful paint was everywhere. At the end of the day, the children came forward and shared their stories with the big group.
As the days passed and my project progressed, I became friends with the Nepali staff at the embassy and observed local library visitors coming and going on a daily basis. The joy, friendliness, and generosity of my new Nepali friends surrounded me every day as I researched and wrote. My new friends accompanied me on school visits and explained to me about Nepali traditions, customs, and day-to-day interactions between friends and family. My new friends took me on walks during work breaks and showed me the fields, flowers, and vegetables growing along the roads. My friends joined me for lunch and told me stories of family, education, culture, and connections. As I researched and wrote, these insights into Nepali culture and education helped me shape the handbook I was writing to make it relevant for Nepal.
By the time my writing was finished, and it was time to travel to another part of Nepal, where I was to hold a day-long training session for American Corner staff from all over Nepal, I was confident that the handbook I had written would be useful for programming in Nepal. Perhaps even more than that, I felt a new and rich sense of belonging. I did not make the journey to Bhairahawa alone; I was accompanied by my new Nepali family. And when I learned that a close family member had died unexpectedly, my new friends surrounded me with love and support and helped me through the pain of my grief.
My journey to Nepal led me to create a handbook of activities and materials for cultural programming in Nepal, but it enriched me in many more ways than I could ever have predicted. When I left Nepal, my new friends told me that I was leaving behind 60% of my love and taking 40% back home with me. I can say from my heart that this is true.